A Longhorn Is Designing Apparel for the World’s Best Athletes

Christopher Pham in downtown Portland wearing the jacket he designed for Nike men’s tennis, on March 12, 2022.

Runways, red carpets, and magazine covers—these are the backdrops most associated with cutting-edge fashion design. 

But when designer Christopher Pham sees his visions come to life, they’re front and center elsewhere: under the lights of a stadium, field, or court featuring some of the world’s most celebrated athletes.  

As a senior designer for Nike, Pham, BS ’11, is part of an elite group entrusted to meld form, function, and style into clothes created for collegiate and professional athletes at the highest levels. In many ways, he is living out a dream he had from a very young age.   

Before he designed outfits worn by The University of Texas men’s tennis team and record-breaking tennis legends such as Rafael Nadal, he was a 3-year-old watching his mother cut patterns on the kitchen floor, then sewing them at the dining room table.  

“[My mother] used to let me take the scraps of fabric and help me create matching outfits for my Barbie dolls. I guess that was my first crash course in upcycling and sustainable design!” Pham says.  

Though he stayed connected to his artistic side over the years, Pham didn’t initially start in the Textiles and Apparel program—or even the College of Natural Sciences. When he first came to UT, he started in communications.  

“I was going to pursue a public relations degree because my parents didn’t think design was a great career choice,” Pham says. “But I had a friend who told me about the Textiles and Apparel design program. So, I thought I would double major and maybe merge the two to create a fashion PR job.”  

But as Pham progressed in his studies, his passion for design outweighed his doubts about a future career. He made the choice to focus on his Textiles and Apparel studies.  

It was a small program, but that’s “what was beautiful about it,” Pham says. The size meant you could shape it into what you wanted—through the projects you wanted to do and the internships you chose. For Pham, that internship was at Ralph Lauren in the Men’s Concept Design Team for Tailored Garments. “It was not the track I was planning on,” he says. “But I really enjoyed menswear.” 

As an undergrad, Pham was also juggling a retail job and rowing as a member of the Men’s Rowing Club Texas crew team. “When I wasn’t in sewing labs and draping classes, I was on Town Lake with my team practicing on the water or running drills on land,” Pham says. He didn’t know then how this seemingly disparate part of his life—as an early morning athlete—would become a touchpoint for his future career as a performance apparel designer.   

Following graduation, Pham landed a job at Vineyard Vines, where he says he learned how an apparel company operated. His next job, at Under Armour in Baltimore, pushed him firmly into the realm of performance apparel and closer to his dream job at Nike.   

“At Under Armour, I spent a lot of time understanding the performance market, how to design for athletes, and how to navigate a big corporate company,” Pham says. “I think those experiences really prepared me to be a designer at Nike.”  

Since starting at Nike in the fall of 2018, Pham has experienced what it means to work at what he calls “the top of the industry in sports and apparel.” He started designing for the NCAA and the NFL, and later moved to men’s tennis, then the track and field design team. He now designs men’s soccer apparel. 

For Pham, seeing his designs come to life is deeply satisfying. “To know that you got to help support athletes everywhere in chasing their dreams, it really gives meaning to your work,” he says. 

In addition to the pride he experiences seeing athletes wearing clothes he helped design, part of what Pham loves about his job is that the garments are functional, which he believes makes them essential to a sustainable future.  

“I’ve always been obsessed with creating things for a purpose. And performance apparel empowers people to reach their full potential. Honestly, I think it’s the foundation for sustainable design. Performance apparel has a purpose, and creating things with purpose and for a reason is the foundation for sustainability,” he says.   

A designer’s understanding of the world, their unique points of view, and honing in on what drives them—and why—are essential to success in the industry. Sustainability and diversity are the two driving forces that continue to inspire Pham and help him think about both what’s led to his current success and what it means for his future career.   

“One of the most powerful realizations I had as a young designer is that people in the industry really didn’t know what to think about a kid from Texas as a designer,” Pham says. “A lot of designers are trained at big schools in LA, New York, or London … but I think despite being a smaller program, Texas is one of the best.”  

And having experience at a school with a large athletics program and fanbase helped shape the way Pham thinks through his designs in performance apparel, because he’s experienced their many applications firsthand.  

“Other design schools aren’t training designers who know what it means to tailgate and go to a huge football school, who know what that mindset is like, and what it means to a fan to see Matthew McConaughey run up and down [the field] with a flag,” he says. “Those experiences really lend themselves to designing really powerful and consumer-centric and consumer-right products.”  

Pham says his own experience is a great example of how diversity can play a huge role in creating the future. His future goals, he says, “really revolve around raising awareness and shining a light on the amazing diversity and talent that comes from unconventional schools of design, as well as designers of color.”  

Credit: Fritz Liedtke


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